KABUL- A NATO helicopter crashed during a battle with the Taliban in Afghanistan, killing 31 U.S. soldiers and 7 Afghans, the Afghan president said on Saturday, a devastating toll and easily the worst single incident for foreign troops in 10 years of war. A brief statement from the presidential palace said the troop-carrying Chinook helicopter had crashed in Syedabad in central Maidan Wardak province, just to the west of the capital, Kabul, and identified the Americans as special forces troops.
The Taliban quickly claimed to have shot down the helicopter during a firefight. They also said eight insurgents had been killed in torrid fighting.
"They wanted to attack our muhahideen who were in a house, but our mujahideen resisted and destroyed a helicopter with a RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) rocket," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said by telephone from an undisclosed location.
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) earlier confirmed that a helicopter had crashed but gave no information about the possible cause or casualties.
Afghanistan's Defense Ministry spokesman, Zaher Azimy, also said the helicopter had crashed. He said the Afghans killed had also been from a commando unit.
"The incident is under investigation right now as this helicopter belongs to international forces," Azimy told Reuters television. "Obviously they will provide details of the crash and the reason."
The high casualties come only two weeks after the start of a gradual process of handing security responsibility from foreign forces to Afghan troops and police, and at a time of growing unease about the increasingly unpopular and costly war.
That process is due to end with all foreign combat troops leaving Afghanistan by the end of 2014, but some U.S. lawmakers have already questioned whether that handover is fast enough.
Incidents with heavy death tolls are sure to raise even more questions about the transition process and how much longer foreign troops should stay.
The crash was by far the worst incident of the war for foreign troops and easily surpassed the worst incidents of battlefield losses. In April 2005, another CH-47 Chinook helicopter crashed, killing 15 U.S. servicemen and three civilian contractors. Another Chinook crash in June the same year killed 17 U.S. troops.
The majority of foreign troops in Wardak, which comes under ISAF's eastern regional command, are American.
Despite the alarming military toll, ordinary Afghan civilians have continued to bear the brunt of the war, with civilian casualties also hitting record levels in the first six months of this year, according to U.N. figures.
In the past month, insurgents have carried out a string of destabilising assassinations of high-profile southern leaders, including president Karzai's half brother, and several large attacks killing police and civilians.
A U.N. report last month said 1,462 civilians were killed in conflict-related incidents in the first six months of 2011, up 15 percent on the first half of 2010. It blamed insurgents for 80 percent of those deaths. (Reuters)